Jeff Mathis has a career .194 batting average, averages a little more than three home runs a year, and just once has started more than half of the games in a season.
Yet Mathis has found a way to build a long career — 16 seasons with five different teams — as one of the game’s most-tenured backup catchers by being regarded more for his defense and relationships with pitchers than his bat.
He turns 38 next month and might find a role this season with the Phillies if J.T. Realmuto’s fractured thumb is more serious than the team’s initial prognosis.
The Phillies currently have two catchers on the 40-man roster behind Realmuto, but they would likely find a way to add Mathis as a backup to Andrew Knapp if Realmuto needs to miss significant time.
“He’s an amazing catcher,” said Realmuto, who had Mathis as his backup for three seasons in Miami. “He’s one of the best guys I’ve seen behind the plate. He works for the pitching staff extremely well. He’s been around so long that he is the exact person you want for that role. He’s done a great job his whole career at working with pitchers well and being good behind the plate, not to mention he’s an unbelievable teammate. What he does off the field, you can’t really quantify or calculate it. He’s one of those guys that instantly brings the clubhouse together and he’s very good to have around.”
Realmuto will wear a cast on this thumb for two weeks before being reevaluated. The catcher and the team are both not overly concerned about the injury and expect him to be ready for the opener on April 1.
If not, the Phillies’ options on the 40-man roster are Knapp and Rafael Marchan, who turns 22 next week. Marchan never played above single A before he was brought last summer to the majors in an emergency, and the Phillies ideally would want the prospect to develop this season in the minor leagues.
And that’s how Mathis could get a chance. He was brought into camp on a minor-league deal, which would allow him to play this spring while playing a mentor’s role. He is one of the game’s best defensive catchers and well regarded for his pitch framing, skills the Phillies would be eager to glean.
At the very least, Mathis will likely stick with the team this season as taxi-squad catcher. The Phillies are allowed to carry five-players on a taxi squad during a road trip in the case of an emergency. One of those players must be a catcher, who is also the only member of the group who can stay with the team at home games. The taxi-squad catcher travels with the team, trains with the team, but does not dress for games nor accrue service time. He is allowed to be a bullpen catcher at home and on the road.
“He’s really good at catching and handling a staff is what it tells you,” manager Joe Girardi said of Mathis’ ability to carve a long career despite a lack of offensive production. “He can do a lot of the little things. He was taking batting practice today and he was bunting and he was doing some hit-and-runs and I said, ‘You played for Mike Scioscia, I know you can do those things because I had to defend those things all the time.’ He’s very good at doing the little things that he has to do to stay in the big leagues and people love throwing to him, people love when he’s behind the plate because you felt like everything was taken care of. All you had to do was make pitches. So I think that’s what it says about him.”
Mathis is not only the oldest player in Phillies camp, but is older than five of the 13 coaches. Since 2011, the Phillies have had just three position players — Jim Thome, Raúl Ibañez, and John McDonald — older than Mathis. And they’ve had just one catcher, Todd Pratt, older than Mathis since 1960. Playing 16 seasons in the big leagues is difficult, but catching for 16 seasons is rare. And there’s a chance Mathis could find season No. 17 in Philadelphia.
“It’s unbelievably impressive,” Realmuto said. “I was actually having a conversation with him today. I pick his brain as much as I can to see what he has done in his career to stay healthy and to keep being able to catch this late in his life. It is pretty special what he has done in his career just to be able to stay as active and as mobile — he looks just as good as he did when he was 30 and that’s something I want to be able to replicate at the end of my career.”